David Tennant's swansong on Doctor Who, "The End of Time", airs today in the UK and tomorrow night on BBC America. But how will the Tenth Doctor's finale — and his big regeneration — compare with those that came before?
There are really two ways in which to evaluate a Doctor's final story. First, you can consider the quality of the story itself, particularly in how well it sums up that particular Doctor's run on the program. Second, you can take a look at the regeneration itself, both in terms of the final scene itself and how the rest of the story builds toward it. So let's run through the previous regeneration stories and take a look at both of these aspects before getting into the tricky business of ranking which was best.
1st Doctor to 2nd Doctor: "The Tenth Planet"
It's difficult to separate the story of "The Tenth Planet" from its overwhelming historical importance. The story not only featured the first regeneration (or, as it was then known, "renewal"), but it also introduced the Cybermen. This is the first of the so-called "base under siege" stories that dominated the next three years of Doctor Who. It also comes from an era of Doctor Who that is almost entirely lost; it is the only story in the show's fourth season from which more than half of its episodes survive intact. Sadly, the final episode is the one that has gone missing, meaning it's impossible to appreciate the regeneration in its full, original context.
Still, once you look past all of that, there is a very solid, at times excellent story waiting to be discovered. The Cybermen have possibly been more intimidating in other stories, but they have never been creepier than they are here, with their cloth faces and disturbingly singsong voices. More so than in later appearances, writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis really get to heart of what a completely logical race would be like, as the Cybermen try to destroy the Earth with chilling detachment.
Somewhat uniquely, the Doctor knows about the Cybermen before they appear, suggesting he has had prior contact with them. Considering he had never heard of the Daleks before his first encounter with them, this represented a rather sizable shift in his knowledge of the cosmos. Although parts of the story rely on some staggeringly bad science — the idea of a twin planet to Earth wandering through space is pretty much completely bonkers — the plot at the heart of "The Tenth Planet" is about as gripping and tense as early Doctor Who could be.
Again, it's kind of hard to look past the larger importance of this first regeneration. After all, if the producers hadn't come up with a way to continue the series after illness forced William Hartnell to leave the show, Doctor Who would have come to an end in 1966, lingering on only as a mostly forgotten curiosity. That said, "The Tenth Planet" does a good job of building up to this final scene, as the Doctor grows progressively weaker over the course of the serial. Unfortunately, this was partially because Hartnell was too sick to appear in episode three, which forced a hasty rewrite to work around his sudden absence. Even so, this does set up a rather appropriate arc for the Doctor in the story, as he is quite clearly in decaying health in the story's final episode.
Since the footage of the regeneration itself has thankfully survived, we can evaluate it from a special effects perspective. Honestly, it's astounding just how well the production team pulled off the change from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, particularly considering how often far simpler effects defeated them. Doctor Who was made for shockingly little money and in shockingly little time in the sixties, but director Derek Martinus insisted they take the time to ensure they made the regeneration as well as possible. At that, they certainly succeeded.
2nd Doctor to 3rd Doctor: "The War Games"
With the 12-part serial "The Dalek Masterplan" all but lost to history, the ten episodes of "The War Games" represent Doctor Who at its most epic. Expanded from its original, more standard six-part length when another story fell through (a common problem in Patrick Troughton's final season on the program), writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks were forced to pull out all the stops to make the second Doctor's farewell story worthy of its insane length. And, somehow, they just about pull it off.
The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe find themselves in what looks like a World War I battlefield, which was instantly one of the darkest, scariest places the series had visited up to that point. The situation gets far grimmer as it becomes clear that larger forces are at work. Unnamed aliens have kidnapped soldiers from throughout Earth's history so that they might take part in massive, deadly war simulations. The ultimate goal is to create an invincible fighting force that will conquer the entire universe. And they're doing it with the technical advice of the War Chief, who reveals himself to be another Time Lord.
"The War Games" works as well as it does because it constantly expands the story's scope, with at least four or five potential big bads revealed to be mere subordinates of even scarier villains. Most classic series Doctor Who stories tend to be padded, and "The War Games" is certainly no exception, as the Doctor gets captured and recaptured a few too many times. But Patrick Troughton is obviously having the time of his life in his swansong, and he gives it even more of his all than usual, which tends to paper over any of the story's deficiencies or redundancies. "The War Games" is a massive, epic tale... and one that I've watched in a single sitting on more than one occasion.
Well, technically speaking, there isn't a regeneration. (Doubly technically speaking, the term "regeneration" wasn't even coined until the third Doctor's departure.) The next Doctor had not yet been cast, and the only thing the show's producers knew was that neither Patrick Troughton nor his costars were coming back. Indeed, there wasn't any certainty that Doctor Who would return at all. As such, the tenth and final episode of "The War Games" is radically different from what preceded it, as it dramatically alters the Doctor's place in the universe.
It does this both by introducing the godlike Time Lords, providing a fleeting glimpse of the society the Doctor had fled, and by exiling the Doctor to Earth. The latter was far more important to the show's survival, as it provided the production team a blueprint to cut costs and establish a format that would restore the series's dwindling popularity. However, the former is more interesting to us, as it began establishing the conventions that still affect the series forty years later.
For instance, it is established here that Time Lords have some control over what they regenerate into, although the Doctor is almost always too busy dying an agonizing death to put much thought into this. (The Master had more success with this when he chose to become young and strong again in "Utopia.") The absolute control that the Time Lords wield is also something that the series has returned to again and again, and indeed it looks like that is one of the crucial ideas in "The End of Time."
Anyway, although we never actually got to see the 2nd Doctor turn into the 3rd Doctor, it probably shouldn't be forgotten that "The War Games" does end with the Time Lords essentially putting this incarnation of the Doctor to death. Not too many series had the guts to execute their protagonist in a season finale. The sheer audacity of it all has got to earn this regeneration a few points, even if it never technically happened.
3rd Doctor to 4th Doctor: "Planet of the Spiders"
"Planet of the Spiders" is sort of a mash-up of a bunch of different types of Third Doctor stories. There's an investigation of mysterious happenings in a seemingly peaceful location in rural England, there are a bunch of humans struggling to free themselves from oppression on an alien planet, there is a mild alien invasion, and there's a big action sequence. There is also a lot interest in Eastern mysticism. If nothing else, the story manages to touch upon just about everything iconic about Jon Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor, with the tragic exception of the Master. (Roger Delgado, who originated the role, had died earlier that year in a car crash.)
The actual plot amounts to little more than a bunch of different groups trying and failing to get their hands on a blue crystal that can grant its possessor extraordinary mental powers. Since there isn't a lot more for the story to accomplish from a narrative perspective, this leads to some incredibly padded sequences. The most infamous of these is a car chase that takes up the bulk of the second episode and is, considering one of the characters involved can teleport, entirely unnecessary. This is hardly the only part of the story that seems unnecessary; indeed, entire characters seem to have been created for no other reason than to chew up time in a story that is stretched over six episodes.
What's probably most interesting about this story is that pretty much everything that happens is the Doctor's fault, and he can only resolve the essential conflict by sacrificing himself. He has to be pushed in this direction by his old Time Lord mentor K'Anpo, and the fact that the Doctor is not immediately willing to accept the fate he has created for himself lends the story a tragic quality. Thematically, "Planet of the Spiders" throws around a ton of great ideas and is a fitting end for the Third Doctor. It's a shame then that the story these ideas are built around is so threadbare.
More than perhaps any other regeneration, this scene really plays like the Doctor's death. Indeed, the Doctor comes about as close to death here as he ever has, considering K'Anpo has to show up to instigate the regeneration process. Leaving the precise mechanics of it all aside, Jon Pertwee's final moments as the Doctor are quite moving, and Elisabeth Sladen's despair as Sarah Jane Smith really complements the intense emotions of the scene. The actual physical change from Pertwee to Tom Baker is almost an afterthought, and that seems entirely appropriate. "Planet of the Spiders" is more about death than regeneration anyway; the Doctor is just lucky that he gets to come back.
4th Doctor to 5th Doctor: "Logopolis"
Tom Baker's final season as the Doctor began as something of a creative resurgence after an increasingly silly year with Douglas Adams as script editor. "The Leisure Hive" and the E-Space Trilogy offered more serious, thoughtful science fiction stories that echoed Baker's early years on Doctor Who. As such, it's a real disappointment that his era limped to such a disastrous conclusion with two tedious, nonsensical stories that accomplished little more than bringing back the Master.
Following on from the boring if inoffensive "Keeper of Traken", "Logopolis" proves an utterly unworthy finale for the classic series's most iconic Doctor. The plot, such as it is, involves the recently revived Master attempting to do something dastardly to the verbal mathematicians of Logopolis, who stave off entropy by doing a lot of really complicated math. I would explain further, but that's about as clear as "Logopolis" makes it.
The Master's original plan never really becomes clear, but it ultimately involves holding the entire universe to ransom. He does this by broadcasting a message from a radio telescope in England, which is about seven different shades of insane. (I mean, even if you ignore the fact that his message, which required a pretty much instant reply because the heat death of the universe was close at hand, would take years to reach even the closest solar systems, there's still the question of how the entire universe was supposed to coordinate a reply to his demands.) The Doctor stops him, but not before a good portion of the universe is wiped out and, more importantly, he falls off the telescope, starting his regeneration.
Basically, "Logopolis" is the 1981 version of a typical Russell T. Davies finale. It involves the return of an iconic villain, the stakes are incomprehensibly massive, it throws around a lot of big ideas that don't really make sense, and the plot doesn't stand up to any great scrutiny. Unfortunately, without the snappy pacing and flashy direction of the new series, it's a lot harder to get lost in the spectacle of it all, making the fatal flaws of "Logopolis" pretty much impossible to ignore.
(Note: The good stuff starts around the 2:10 mark.)
Thankfully, the regeneration is one of the two or three bits of "Logopolis" that sort of works. Although the story's attempts to create a melancholy, funereal tone contribute to its general sluggishness, it does pay off with a big regeneration scene that feels appropriately built up. A mysterious white figure, referred to as The Watcher, appears throughout the four episodes of "Logopolis", and he is revealed here to be a projection of the Doctor's future. It doesn't really make any more sense than anything else, but it's a neat idea that makes the Doctor's death seem more intrinsic to the story than it otherwise might.
We also see an appropriately big rundown of all the major villains and companions of the fourth Doctor's tenure. Admittedly, it's not the best edited montage I've ever seen, and there's a hell of a drinking game to be had from the amount of times people say the word "Doctor" in the final two minutes, but it all ends in a moment of quiet dignity from Tom Baker. The regeneration itself is handled well enough, although I would have liked to see Tom Baker actually turn into Peter Davision without the Watcher crammed in between. In any event, the regeneration is far from perfect, but it's a work of brilliance compared to everything that comes before it.
5th Doctor to 6th Doctor: "The Caves of Androzani"
I hope you all like superlatives, because "The Caves of Androzani" is my choice for best Doctor Who story of all time, bar none. I realize that's a slightly unorthodox opinion (I can actually feel my critical respectability slipping away), but Doctor Who super-writer Robert Holmes was never better than he is here. He constructs a fully-realized society using just a few sets, one location, and a ton of brilliant little details. He makes everybody in the story a complete bastard without any of it seeming gratuitous or nasty, something that all too often tripped up Doctor Who in the eighties.This is one of the few times Doctor Who actually feels Shakespearean in its scope, though that might just be because the villainous Trau Morgus keeps making asides to the cameras.
He also constructs a story that moves inexorably towards the Doctor's regeneration, something that director Graeme Harper picks up on perfectly. Every single cliffhanger finds the Doctor seemingly facing certain death (the end of episode 3 is maybe the tensest cliffhanger in the history of the series). Every male character in the story dies, the Doctor very much included. Indeed, the Doctor dooms himself in the first few minutes of episode one, as he idly touches the poisonous spectrox that will destroy his body.
What always amazes me is how contained a story "The Caves of Androzani" is. The stakes in the story don't really extend beyond a petty local squabble over a precious material, and the Doctor is too busy trying to save Peri to ever really get involved. But almost because of all that, everything that happens here seems so much more important than, say, "Logopolis." Throughout, the Doctor is fighting for Peri's life at the expense of his own, and Peter Davison makes it clear that the Doctor is fighting harder than he ever has before to save his friend.
Graeme Harper's bravura direction extends to the regeneration scene. As he explained in the DVD commentary, his approach to the regeneration was influenced by the crescendo in "A Day in the Life", and this idea of starting small and building to a huge conclusion is very much in evidence. The idea of bringing back old companions (plus the Master) owes a debt to "Logopolis", but it's far better executed here. Instead of a bunch of old clips of various villains and companions saying the word "Doctor", they actually brought back the original actors to record new lines that sum up their relationship with the Doctor. Their disembodied heads then revolve and intermingle, until the Master interrupts them all with a demand that the Doctor finally die.
There are only a couple problems with the scene. I have to admit, part of the thrill of a regeneration is actually getting to see one Doctor turn into another, and we don't get that here. Also, the Sixth Doctor is maybe just a little too flippantly dismissive of his predecessor in his closing lines. Still, there might be a common explanation for both of these issues. There's a sense here that the show is trying to create a definitive, clean break between the eras, as it sends the Fifth Doctor off in style and introduces the Sixth Doctor with a bang. All of which would have worked great, if only the next story wasn't the utterly disastrous "The Twin Dilemma."
6th Doctor to 7th Doctor: The first thirty seconds of "Time and the Rani" and possibly the novel Spiral Scratch
And so begins a long run of Doctors not getting their own proper regeneration stories. For Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, it was because the series was canceled (or, if we're being technical, not picked up) before they could regenerate. Colin Baker, on the other hand, had the inglorious distinction of being the only Doctor ever fired from the role, as he was (unfairly) blamed for the show's declining quality and popularity. Executive producer John Nathan-Turner offered him the opportunity to return at the start of the next season for a regeneration story. Understandably, he refused, which meant the show had to somehow pull off a regeneration without one of the two required Doctors. (But more on that in a moment.)
Perhaps the only circumstances worse than those of Colin Baker's departure from Doctor Who were those of his Doctor's regeneration. Based on what we see in the opening minute of the seventh Doctor's debut adventure, "Time and the Rani", one can only assume the sixth Doctor died from a bump on the head. Gary Russell, Doctor Who's resident fixer of minor continuity problems, took it upon himself to offer a more dignified death for the sixth Doctor in his novel Spiral Scratch. The book suggests that the Doctor actually died from intense blasts of chronon energy while attempting to save the entire multiverse. Hey, it beats a bump on the head.
Ooh boy. When people talk about Doctor Who hitting rock bottom in the eighties, I'd nominate this minute as the show at its absolute worst. Crappy space effects accompanied by horrifically cheesy music? Check. Shockingly inept direction and daft camera movies? Check and check. Indefensible artistic choices? Oh, that's a big check. I mean, the TARDIS crashes on a rainbow. I think. Honestly, I'm not sure my mind can really process what I just saw.
Oh, and then there's the regeneration itself, which features the world's best Colin Baker impersonator subbing in for the absent Sixth Doctor. That's right, folks: it's Sylvester McCoy in a big blond wig! With an opening like that, you just know you're in for something special. I think anyone who has seen "Time and the Rani" can back me up on that one. I honestly can't believe the Doctor Who production staff thought this was preferable to just skipping the regeneration. After all, no one has ever criticized Spearhead from Space for not featuring five seconds of Jon Pertwee in a Patrick Troughton wig. And if anyone has, I'll fight them myself.
7th Doctor to 8th Doctor: "Doctor Who: The Movie"
Much like "Time and the Rani", the 1996 TV movie is really more an introduction to the eighth Doctor than a farewell to the seventh, but at least here Sylvester McCoy is given a proper chance to pass the torch onto Paul McGann. As I'm one of the dozen or so people who really likes the TV movie (and there goes the last shred of my critical respectability), I'll spare you my epic defense of its misunderstood brilliance and just focus on how it treats the seventh Doctor.
This treatment is, on balance, just OK. Although Sylvester McCoy is one of the more limited actors to play the Doctor, he can be great when he plays to his strengths, and the TV movie really doesn't ask him to do very much. He does do a good job getting across just how impossibly old the Doctor is, and there is a weariness to his performance that suggests he somehow senses the end is near. It would have been nice if he got more than three lines, but what's there is rather good.
Director Geoffrey Sax and writer Matthew Jacobs really love their symbolism. In an artistic decision that is either totally awesome or unspeakably cliched (or both, maybe), they juxtapose the regeneration with a classic scene from the 1930 version of Frankenstein where the monster is first given life. (We also later see the Eighth Doctor wander into a room full of broken mirrors. Because he doesn't know who he is, you see.) This regeneration is notable, because it really suggests how horrific the process is, as the mostly dead Seventh Doctor writhes in pain as his entire body rearranges into its new form. Unfortunately, the actual, final change is a bit anticlimactic. I'll have to deduct points for that.
8th Doctor to 9th Doctor: Who knows?
Since Russell T. Davies (wisely) began the revived series with Christopher Eccleston already in place as the Ninth Doctor, we still don't have any definitive idea as to the fate of the Eighth Doctor. Though there's a slight chance the second part of "The End of Time" might shed some light on the subject, this will likely remain unexplained for the foreseeable future. The closest thing I've ever found to an official word on the subject — and this takes a hell of a lot of digging to uncover — can be found buried deep within the archives of the old tie-in website "Who Is Doctor Who?", which was the first of a bunch of quickie websites the BBC created to promote the first series of new Doctor Who. If you click through to the "Sightings" page on the original incarnation of the website, you'll find this nugget:
I saw him a couple a years ago outside a new building development in Totters Lane, East London. The guy seemed really confused and keep muttering, "They're all gone, I'm the only one left". The man was either a complete loon or was drunk. Looking back I think he was probably drunk as he looked as if he'd been to a fancy dress party. He was wearing some old Edwardian outfit, not a leather jacket.
So, if I may add 2 and 2 together to make 100, this obviously means the eighth Doctor regenerated right at the end of the Time War, in which he wiped out Daleks and Time Lords alike, and then the ninth Doctor went to Totters Lane in 2003 — exactly forty Earth years after his adventures began in that very same location! — to try and get his bearings while still wearing his predecessor's clothes. Obviously. Or we can just file all that away as massively non-canonical and move on.
9th Doctor to 10th Doctor: "Bad Wolf"/"Parting of the Ways"
I've warmed to this story considerably since the first time I watched it. Like I suggested earlier, this is pretty much the 2005 version of "Logopolis", and the big difference is that it moves just fast enough and is just gleefully crazy enough to make me look past its sometimes sizable faults. I already went over my list of what worked and what didn't in a recent post, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much.
If I might add one point to the earlier critique, it's that I'm not sure how well "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways" works as the Ninth Doctor's farewell episode. It's still a bit of a mess trying to figure out exactly what happened when with Christopher Eccleston's decision to leave Doctor Who, so I'm uncertain whether the story was originally intended to serve as his swansong. (I don't believe it was, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.) As such, there's a bit of a sense that the regeneration is bolted onto the rest of the story.
Considering the entire first series is built around the predestination of the words "Bad Wolf", you might think it would have been possible to drop a few more hints of the Doctor's fate. There might have been an opportunity for the Doctor to consider his own mortality and how it is different from those of his human allies. It's actually a bit weird that the Doctor regenerates after an entire episode of expecting certain death at the hands of the Daleks. Thematically, it doesn't quite line up. And, if nothing else, it would have been nice if the ninth Doctor's final appearance didn't begin with a Big Brother homage. Oh well.
I'm not sure why I feel like using this particular word, but the Ninth Doctor's regeneration is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. It's certainly remarkable how well the show pulled off the first regeneration back in 1966, but here you can really see how impressive a regeneration of a proper budget can look. Although the regeneration in the TV movie captured something of the body horror of the process, "Parting of the Ways" really brings out the kind of explosive energy such a process would surely involve.
The actual visual transformation from Christopher Eccleston into David Tennant looks spectacular, and Tennant gets across exactly what the Tenth Doctor is all about in just a few short lines. (I'd actually argue he didn't recapture that performance until late in series two, but that's another issue for another time.) But this regeneration is really about Christopher Eccleston. Although he starts out babbling and overly manic - an understandable fault, considering he's dying — he excels once he shifts into his more serious goodbye to Rose. He really nails the bittersweet emotions of saying goodbye when he's not really going away at all. Much as I'm a classic series Who fan at heart, I've got to admit it - this is probably the best regeneration.
10th Doctor to 10th Doctor: "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End"
It's Dalek Armageddon once again, and it's going to take every single person the Tenth Doctor has ever met to save the day. In the midst of all this insanity, Rose Tyler and the Doctor are pining after each other, desperate for a reunion. After a bunch of near-misses, the two finally find each other on an abandoned London road. Well, not quite abandoned, as a Dalek lurks around the corner.
Yes, at long last, the Daleks finally manage to do something the Cybermen, the Master, some poison, a bump on the head, and the American medical system had already accomplished: force the Doctor to regenerate! (Well, I guess they kind of did that in "Parting of the Ways" too. But here they actually exterminated him!)
I really don't like that Russell T. Davies pulled a psych-out regeneration. (I believe that's the technical term.) I would say that it wasn't all that tense, considering I knew David Tennant was already filming that year's Christmas Special and thus would definitely be staying on, but I suppose not everyone scoured the Internet for spoilers as much as I did. (And even those who did weren't necessarily convinced this meant he wasn't regenerating — the Outpost Gallifrey boards were even awash with theories even more half-baked than usual.) So maybe it really was the "biggest cliffhanger ever" to some viewers.
Still, it just seems a bit cheap to me to use regeneration like this. I try to avoid acting too much like an insufferable old-school fan, but I kind of think you should only use regeneration when a Doctor is actually leaving. Beyond the fact that the Doctor's explanation of what just happened is cloyingly cute and requires David Tennant to vomit up exposition at an alarming rate, it also does no favors for the eventual Eleventh Doctor (who we will of course be meeting very, very soon). Perhaps I'm just being paranoid on Matt Smith's behalf, but it seems a bit unfair for the Tenth Doctor to actually ask why he would ever want to change. It's a question I rather wish had never been placed in viewers' minds.
So now, with all that out of the way, here's my incredibly authorative and entirely inarguable ranking of both the regenerations and the stories that preceded them. I should note that, for the stories, I'm only considering the Doctors that got proper regeneration stories, and I can't in good conscience count the first minute of "Time and the Rani" or the opening of the TV movie.
Ranking the Regenerations
10. 6th to 7th, "Time and the Rani"
9. The unseen 8th to 9th regeneration
8. 10th to 10th, "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End"
7. 2nd to 3rd, "The War Games"
6. 7th to 8th, "Doctor Who: The Movie"
5. 4th to 5th, "Logopolis"
4. 1st to 2nd, "The Tenth Planet"
3. 3rd to 4th, "Planet of the Spiders"
2. 5th to 6th, "The Caves of Androzani"
1. 9th to 10th, "Bad Wolf"/"Parting of the Ways"
Ranking the Stories
6. "The Stolen Planet"/"Journey's End"
5. "Planet of the Spiders"
4. "The Tenth Planet"
3. "Bad Wolf"/"Parting of the Ways"
2. "The War Games"
1. "Caves of Androzani"
Where will "The End of Time" ultimately rank? After a very shaky first episode, it's got a lot of work to do to be considered alongside the classics on these lists. Still, hope, not unlike the Doctor himself, springs eternal...